Like many of my Parliamentary colleagues across the House, I am appalled by the treatment of the sub-postmasters who were accused of theft based on flawed evidence from the Horizon IT system. Victims' accounts of the impact of these prosecutions are harrowing: some served prison sentences; many had their livelihoods and life savings decimated; marriages broke down; four committed suicide; others passed away before being able to clear their names; and many were ostracised by their local communities and as a result failed to find alternative work.
While we cannot undo the damage that has been done, we must establish what went wrong. I am aware that nobody at either the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held directly accountable. However, in light of the rulings, the Government converted a public inquiry into the affair to a statutory footing which allows its Chair, Sir Wyn Williams, the necessary powers and time to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the scandal. I understand that Sir Wyn has publish his interim report, and my ministerial colleagues will provide a formal response shortly. You can read Sir Wyn’s interim report here: https://www.postofficehorizoninquiry.org.uk/interim-report-compensation…
The Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill will ensure that the trailblazers who exposed the scandal do not miss out on compensation because of an arbitrary deadline. The Government is determined to make compensation claims as soon as possible, and by the current deadline of August 2024. However, time needs to be taken to assess more complex claims, so postmasters receive full and fair compensation and are not unduly rushed into making a decision on their claims.
To date, more than £148 million has been paid to 2,700 victims across all compensation schemes, 93 convictions have been overturned and, of those, 30 have agreed full and final settlements. Just over £30 million has been paid out in compensation to those with overturned convictions, including interim payments.
Of the original 555 courageous postmasters who took the Post Office to court and who first brought the Horizon scandal into the public eye, £27 million has been paid out to 477 claimants in addition to the net £11 million received through the December 2019 settlement. Forty-seven members of the original Group Litigation Order (GLO) group have also received compensation following the overturning of their convictions, totalling more than £17 million. The Government has received full claim forms from 59 of those postmasters who are eligible for the GLO scheme and issued 43 offers. There have been 21 full and final settlements paid and a further seven full and final settlements accepted. That brings the total number of accepted full and final GLO settlements to 28.
It is worth noting that the 2,417 postmasters who claimed through the original Horizon shortfall scheme have all received offers of compensation. Around 85 per cent have accepted those offers, worth over £107 million. In total, over £91 million has been paid out through the scheme, with the Post Office now dealing with late applications and with cases where initial offers were not accepted.
The harm that these prosecutions have wreaked on the affected families over the past 20 years is irreparable. Lessons should and will be learnt to ensure that an injustice of this magnitude never happens again.
It is only right that emergency legislation is being brought forward as soon as possible to overturn convictions of all those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of Post Office evidence given during the Horizon scandal. The Government will consider in the coming days whether to include the small number of cases that have already been considered by the appeals courts and their convictions upheld. The Government recognises that this is an exceptional step, however these are exceptional circumstances.
There is great concern about the role of the Post Office in prosecuting these cases. The Post Office rightly decided to stop undertaking private prosecutions in 2015. If we are to make sure that a scandal such as this can never happen again, we need to look at the way in which private prosecutions such as these have been undertaken. Any company can bring private prosecutions in this way: this is not a special power of the Post Office.
The Government has been clear that it should not be the taxpayer alone who funds these compensation schemes. The inquiry is committed to concluding by the end of this year and reporting shortly after. At that point, Ministers will know who was responsible for what, and they should then be able to identify who can be made responsible through potential financial contributions, rather than the taxpayer alone.